By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
For about 45 minutes, the KeyBank Center turned into something of a time machine.
The team that represented the 21st century was the Toronto Maple Leafs, a sleek machine built for speed that was almost breathtaking to watch.
And then from the 20th century were the Buffalo Sabres, who were left to chase them and hope that their goalie, Carter Hutton, could do enough to keep them close.
Buffalo’s “plan” almost worked, thanks to a memorable performance by its goalie. Even so, the Maple Leafs certainly deserved their 4-2 victory before a sellout crowd that included plenty of happy fans from across the border.
“I think we weren’t executing,” Casey Mittelstadt of the Sabres said. “There were plays there, plays we had to make. We were just too slow. They have a fast team. They are going to have to come at you fast. We have to move the puck quickly. That’s how you beat it.”
Stuck in the end
The Maple Leafs were coming off a disappointing loss in Nashville on Tuesday night, and they seemed intent on making up for it on Wednesday. Toronto started strong, keeping the puck in the Buffalo zone for long stretches. When the puck did end up in to the Maple Leafs’ end, someone would make a pass or two and a couple of Toronto players would be headed back the other way at high speed. The shot clock for Toronto’s side kept going up, but the scoreboard remained unchanged.
Finally, someone scored – and to the surprise of most, it was a Sabre that did it. Mittelstadt put one on goal from a severe angle, and it ended up in the net. The goal light didn’t shine and the horn didn’t sound immediately, but it was a 1-0 lead.
“The goalie wasn’t back so I tried to throw it off his pads,” Mittelstadt said. “I guess I got lucky.”
It was more of the same in the second period. You’d think Toronto would have expended most of its energy taking 19 shots in the first period, but it was good for 19 more in the middle session. Two of them went in. Austin Matthews, who looked like he had been sent down from a better league for the night in order tune up his game, tied the game early in the second. John Tavares had an easy tap-in of a loose puck to give Toronto the lead in the last two minutes.
The shot total after 40 minutes was 38-15 through two periods, which brought back memories of the 2014-15 season of the Sabres. Hutton’s play was about the only reason Buffalo was still in the game.
“Yeah, he was really good – he stopped so many shots,” Alexander Nylander said.
Hutton added, “I think I’ve given our team a chance to win all year, so I just try to compete the best I can. A lot of things are out of my control, so I do what I can do.”
Still, the Sabres were only a goal down with a period to go. They were a single play from somehow tying the game, and if that happened a more tired Toronto team might be ready to let down a bit. But the Leafs scored in the first 22 seconds of the third period to make it 3-1, and that changed the tone of the contest.
Nylander nets one
Mitchell Marner’s score made Nylander’s goal with 14:23 left merely a way to get back into the game instead of tying it. Nylander hasn’t been playing badly since a recall from Rochester, and his first NHL goal of the season was a nice reward for that.
“It helps to get the first one out of the way,” he said. “I’m trying to playing my game in every game, and enjoy my time up here.”
The Maple Leafs came into the game having lost four out of five, and had allowed 26 goals in the process. But they summoned up enough defensive energy to prevent the Sabres from scoring, and an empty-netter in the final minute wrapped things up.
“We knew the magnitude of this game, the rivalry,” coach Phil Housley said. “We didn’t execute early. We didn’t make plays, we didn’t move our feet, we turned the puck over. We were chasing a lot. When we did have the puck, we didn’t manage it well. … Their better players were really good tonight.”
What’s more, this latest loss meant the Sabres had missed another opportunity to win two straight games. They haven’t done that since December, and they only have nine games left to do so.
That’s a symbol of a season that won’t extend into mid-April again and ultimately will be remembered as another in a series of disappointing outcomes.
“I wish I could put it into words,” Hutton said. “We put so much into it. I put my heart and soul into it. You want to win and help the team make the playoffs. We’re not doing it now.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)